In the early 1900s Spain underwent substantial political and artistic changes. Innovators like Juan Gris and most notably Pablo Picasso began exploring Cubism, an iconic artstyle dominated by simple geometric shapes and sometimes collage. In 1936, the Spanish civil war had the leftist revolution and the rightist counterrevolution directly butting heads, it’s end in 1939 marking the beginning of Francisco Franco’s 36 year military regime.
Artist Luis Quintanilla Isasi’s life and art intricately relates to these turbulent times. Luis Quintanilla was born in Santander, Spain in 1893. With a desire to travel and to paint, Quintanilla travelled to Montmarte, France, where many other artists had settled to grow their talent. It was in France where he began his artistic career as a Cubist. Although he painted for several years in France, he eventually returned to Spain and pursued a political career.
Having befriended Juan Negrín, the Premier during the Spanish civil war, Quintanilla successfully assisted the peaceful revolution in April 1931 which established the Second Spanish Republic. Following, he continued to offer military his services to the Republic by leading the troops on Madrid’s Montaña Barracks, eventually leaving to his painting. Once Francisco Franco’s regime had taken hold in 1939, Quintanilla had been sentenced to exile for this collaboration with the Republic. He left the country, living for years in New York and in Paris. He would not decisively return to Spain until the end of his life, after the death of Franco in 1975. On October 16, 1978, Luis Quintanilla passed away in Madrid at the age of 85, fulfilling his desire to spend the last of his years in his home country.
Quintanilla’s works have left several dispersed imprints. His frescos had been found on New York City walls; in recent years, the University of Cantabria in Santander, Spain had underwent great efforts to restore some of Quintanilla’s works; and perhaps most importantly, in 2014 his own son Paul Quintanilla published a tome dedicated to his father’s legacy: Waiting at the Shore.
Waiting at the Shore compiles his father’s memoirs (translated from Spanish to English), images of several of his works, and letters and anecdotes into a comprehensive biography of his father journey. On Paul Quintanilla’s site, which is primarily dedicated to exploring the life and artistic works of his father, Paul specifies that, “This biography describes his [Luis Quintanilla’s] exile in New York and in Paris following the Spanish Civil War: a time of great struggle for him, when he needed to both economically establish himself as an artist (having lost the base of his home country) and to master and transcend his art.”
Select chapters from this work can be on the site, as well. From these selections alone one can note the immense attention to detail placed into creating a story, rather than a scholarly analysis, of Luis Quintanilla’s life. Great effort has been placed in providing cultural and historical context to these event without sacrificing the narration’s personal tone. It imparts the impression that the reader is listening to Paul speak of his father in person. And indeed, Paul admits that this is the image he strove to bring to life. Although some publishers recommended that Paul create an “autobiography” rather than a biography out of his manuscript, Paul believed this went against the point of the work. As he says, it would have been “a scholarly version of a story which was not at all scholarly in spirit.”
Take, for example, the following passage, which provides context to a quote said by Luis Quintanilla, “Yo era un pintor, no un revolucionaro” (I was a painter, not a revolutionary).
“My father often lamented throughout his long life the tendency for his work to be either destroyed or lost. The Fascists, at first, didn’t take him very seriously, not comprehending that artists are not merely frivolous people who only introduce pretty decorations into the world but are capable of serious thought and judgements and can, in certain circumstances, be very dangerous. The Fascists would eventually greatly regret not having shot him when they had the chance. And in retribution, when they could after the war, destroyed all his remaining work, everything they could get their hands on. Even when there had been nothing political about it.
But the great irony in all this, about his reputation, is that he would have far preferred to be left alone and to paint in peace than be involved in politics. And he often felt obliged to explain that he was first of all a painter and not a revolutionary” (introduction).
This passage exemplifies the importance of Paul’s personal voice amidst the factual contextualization. Without it, the reader would not come to know Quintanilla’s preoccupations with the politicization of his art – an intimate fact that is not easily visible through other biographies or his own art. The spelling error in the quotation (revolucionaro instead of revolucionario) does not undermine, for this reader, the validity of this storytelling. Rather, it almost seems to reinforce Paul Quintanilla’s perspective as the son of a Spaniard born outside of Spain.